31 December 2006

Review of Pan's Labyrinth

by John Shirley

special to Locus Online

Written and Directed by Guillermo del Toro

Produced by Alfonso Cuaron and Guillermo del Toro

Starring Ivana Baquero, Doug Jones and Sergi Lopez

In Spanish with English Subtitles.

It is 1944 in Guillermo de Toro's masterful new cinematic fantasy, Pan’s Labyrinth. A young girl, Ofelia, accompanies her pregnant mother to a remote outpost of Franco's Fascist army in the forests of Northern Spain. In the chauffeured car Ofelia reads of another young girl, the immortal daughter of the king of a magical underworld; wanting to experience sunlight and the supposed freedom of the upper world, this legendary princess escapes to the surface where she experiences disease and old age and death. But her spirit, incarnating into mortals, is said to be destined to find its way back to her faithful father and immortality in the underworld... Stopping along the way, Ofelia discovers an ancient carving of a deity from the mouth of which — at her instinctive prompting — appears a large mantis-like insect, a mantis with wings that she recognizes as a fairy in disguise. When they reach the old mill that her cold, brutal stepfather, Captain Vidal, uses as headquarters for his campaign to annihilate the vestige of resistance to Franco's oppression, Ofelia follows the fairy into a nearby ruin, "the labyrinth of the faun". Here, with surprising dispatch, she encounters the titular faun himself, Pan, a horned and hooved fellow looking almost as reptilian as he is goatish. He reveals that Ofelia herself is the lost daughter of the king of the underworld — which is a place more like paradise than like Hades — and if she performs three tasks, similar to those in the fairy tales she loves, she can return to that world. Her own father having died, and life with the vile Captain Vidal quite unappealing, Ofelia undertakes the tasks in secret, having to creep into the underground lair of a repulsive giant toad, clamber through magical entrances into the feasting hall of the truly horrible Pale Man, and a third task at which she may balk...

Side by side with the unfolding story of her magical encounters — more a companion story than a true interweaving — is the story of Mercedes, the servant to Captain Vidal who secretly collaborates with the Resistance fighters. This parallel plotline is a gritty, blood-spattered account that treats us to Vidal beating innocent locals to death, Vidal shooting anyone he pleases, Vidal reveling in arbitrary authority, and Vidal privately tormented by self-loathing.

Guillermo del Toro's latest is not, as some of us had supposed, an adaptation of Machen's classic of decadent fantasy, The Great God Pan, though Machen-like imagery arises; it is del Toro's own concoction. Its recipe includes ingredients drawn from Borges, Dunsany, Machen and possibly Lovecraft. But this is essentially an original tale, its symbols familiar to fans of del Toro. The insect that becomes humanoid was a key image in del Toro's Mimic and an insect hidden in a device that could confer a dubious immortality was at the heart of his Cronos. Christian symbols recur in his work but del Toro appropriates and rearranges them to reverberate to his own almost pagan, poetic interpretation. He has indicated that Pan's Labyrinth is a kind of indirect sequel to his earlier cinematic encounter between magic and the horrors of the Spanish Civil War, The Devil's Backbone, in which a young boy in a remote orphanage struggles with bullies and a diabolic plot as fascists close in and an unexploded bomb ticks away in the courtyard. An alliance with the ghost of a dead boy saves the orphans — the ghost child a chthonic figure, like the faun of Pan’s Labyrinth, since both are links to the shadowy land beyond the veil of death. In both films, children are pitted against perverse authority figures, and against those who serve them, the adults who succumb to "mindless obedience"; their resources obtain from the world of the imagination. It's how a child survives the stone-heartedness, the inflexibility of the oppressive adult.

It's easy to see the political allegory in Pan’s Labyrinth — the term fascism has cropped up increasingly in somewhat hysterical evaluations of the present, embarrassing American administration — but del Toro's rebellion is ultimately against the tyranny of facts, of reductionism and the harsh realities of existence itself.

Still, fairy tales often have political overtones. An evil king or a cruel witch dominating the kingdom is overthrown when a good prince returns: peculiar, symbol-rich tasks are undertaken, and the status quo changes; the old order is overthrown, a new springtime comes to the land. The end of Pan’s Labyrinth is bittersweet; it can be no spoiler to remark that the egregiously callous Vidal (very ably, chillingly played by Sergi Lopez) is inevitably overthrown by the rebels, and Ofelia, despite enduring tragedy and violence, transcends all, through a strikingly Christ-like self sacrifice, to attain her dream. Surely you knew that would happen. But along the way Pan’s Labyrinth dramatizes the sharp contrast between the meaningless, animalistic violence of the human world, and the meaningful, spiritual dangers — sometimes violence too — of the magical world. Humans, to del Toro, create social constructions, supported by killing and torture, to justify their brutish impulses; humans torture one another to death, humans enact a rigid hierarchy that seems no more than an elaboration of the territorial dominance of one ape over another; magical beings, by contrast, work in symbols that are all archetype, that relate to the values of the eternal world, the wellsprings of the ancient. Mortals think short term — and thus inevitably despoil the Earth — whereas spiritual beings refer always to the seamless flow of nature, the touchstones of the eternal. The faun, the Pan figure, delightfully portrayed by Doug Jones (who also plays the ghastly, eyeless Pale Man, eater of small children), capers and taunts and dispenses hints that there is always another, deeper meaning to everything he says. The girl is strangely unsurprised to meet him, unfrightened by him; she seems enchanted by the fairies who are her go-betweens to the magical world, and never seems unsettled by them. That's not an omission: to an innocent heart, the material world is always a husk; it is the bud, and the world of the imagination is its full flowering. What horrifies Ofelia, what seems strange to her, is the surrender of her sad mother — played affectingly by Ariadna Gil — to the values of the Captain Vidals of the world.

Guillermo del Toro offers us a choice — here is the world we have made, with its Guantanamos, its armies — and here is the world of the imagination, fraught with danger but offering hope deep down in the secret places it protects. Ofelia — charmingly played by Ivana Baquero — tells a story to her brother while he's still in the womb. Del Toro shows the near-term fetus in the womb listening to the story, and segues from the womb to the fairy tale to Ofelia's story unfolding in the forest, so that we feel that it's all one tale after all, the inward world of the womb melding with the world of magic which mysteriously impinges on the material world — itself miraculously contained in the dreaming mind, the world from which we emerge into birth...

Expertly directed, edited with an almost supernatural assurance and shot in Goyaesque colors, Pan’s Labyrinth is first an entertainment, an adult fairy tale — let us emphasize adult, its portrayal of execution and torture, not to mention the nightmarish Pale Man, making it unsuitable for small children. The film moves at a breathless pace, some of its transitions perhaps too abrupt. The special effects are mostly convincing, and are artistically of a piece with overall design. Del Toro's images of secret realms under the earth, magical beings and purposefully sickening underground spaces — images largely based on the director's own drawings — are gorgeously imagined, free of hobbity twee and cuteness. Even the fairies have their ghastly side — and can die hideously. Some high fantasy fans may find Pan’s Labyrinth too relentlessly grim, but the rest of us discover in it a satisfying fusion of the gothic and the fairy tale; an anti-fascist masterpiece of cinematic magic realism.

John Shirley is the author of numerous works including the forthcoming novel The Other End and the new story collection Living Shadows. The authorized fansite is www.darkecho.com/JohnShirley.


At Thursday, January 04, 2007 8:22:00 PM, Greg said...

I'm not certain that the ending is as happy as you describe. (SPOILERS AHOY:) I think Del Toro leaves it ambiguous as to whether Ofelia really goes to the underworld and lives happily ever after, or if all of that is just a fantasy going through her head as she's dying. There are some things to suggest that the supernatural stuff in the film is literally happening - like how Ofelia's mother immediately becomes sick after she destroys the mandrake root - but it's all left rather uncertain. Remember that at the end, Vidal couldn't see Pan, he saw Ofelia talking to herself. It could well be that Pan chose not to appear to Vidal, but again, it opens up the question of whether Pan was really there at all. (Interestingly, Del Toro has said that Pan was in disguise as the toad and the Pale Man! So, perhaps Ofelia was never in real danger... note that for all his flailing and scariness, the Pale Man never actually touches her.)

At Monday, February 05, 2007 8:42:00 AM, Anonymous said...

Greg's take on the movie's ending is much like my own.

If del Toro intended the movie's ending to be less ambiguous, he failed.

This is a dark story. Don't go to see it when you are depressed.

S. F. Reader

At Wednesday, February 21, 2007 9:34:00 AM, opoponax said...

I don't think Shirley meant to imply that the ending is happily-ever-after, just that, as he says, Ofelia "transcends." My own take is that she triumphs when she refuses to follow orders blindly, just as the doctor did -- and this was a central tenet of the rebels in the Spanish Civil War.

OTOH -- yes, they _were_ spoilers, Mr. Shirley. Fortunately, I'd already seen the movie.


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